Tennis is the cruelest sport. Or, as a wise blogger once argued, the mental grueliest sport. The last point must be won. There’s no way to build a lead and run out the clock. Hours of toil might have earned that big lead, but as soon as the focus lapses, or the pressure enervates your arms, and the balls start landing in the middle of the net, things are now suddenly going very badly, and there is no one to blame but yourself. Case in point: World No. 62 Danielle Collins played hours of mostly fierce and purposeful tennis against the top seed Iga Swiatek in their second-round Australian Open match. She led by two breaks in the deciding set, up 4-1 with the upset in reach. Everything was going well for Collins, until it wasn’t: She got tight, and Swiatek stabilized to reel off five straight games and snatch away the win, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. And just in case her tale of near-victory needed a sadder coda, right after the match, the 30-year-old Collins announced that this would be her final season as a pro.
It’d be easy to write this off as The Experience Of A Champion besting someone Who Hasn’t Been There Before, but Collins has indeed been there before, even if that’s obscured by her current ranking. Just two years ago, when she was in the best form of her career and on her way into the top 10, Collins beat Swiatek in a semifinal of this very tournament. Afterwards, Swiatek said it was “the fastest ball I have ever played against in a match.” That’s a decent summary of what Collins is about. If you took the rest of the world’s caricature of an American tourist and then made a whole tennis player out of it, it might look something like Danielle Collins: brash, honking vigor in a sports visor. Watch her matches for the loudest “come on”s ever to shatter the quiet of a tennis court—if you don’t believe me, consult a seven-minute video called “Danielle Collins SCREAM Ultimate Compilation.” There are some vivid stankfaces, and some spectacular crosscourt backhands, in there. She plays tennis at one pace, and it’s a thrill to watch when it’s working, as it was for the majority of these three hours and 14 minutes.
Swiatek won the first set and broke to start the second set, but Collins loosened up, hit harder, and won five games straight. Serving for the second set at 5-1, her nerves first conspicuously interfered with her play. She lost that game over 10 stifling minutes punctuated by four double-faults, but finished the set off on her second go-around when serving at 5-3. At that juncture of the match, it looked as if her aggression had overwhelmed a relatively sluggish Swiatek, who took a bathroom break between sets and returned with a band around her left knee that has been causing her some woe since the last tournament of 2023. Collins built herself another comfortable cushion in the third set, but while leading 4-1 and closing in on the win, her true tennis eluded her. The arms got tighter, and the strokes looked muscled; the puncher was no longer throwing genuine punches. Collins’s game doesn’t necessarily have a defensive layer or a finesse wrinkle to it, and as her execution faltered, in several moments of excruciating tension, Swiatek stirred to life. A five-game burst—including a service hold after going down 0-40, 2-4—locked in one of the more memorable comebacks of her career.
Meanwhile, immediately after a near-upset of the best player in the world, Collins revealed that this would be her last time competing in Melbourne. “I don’t really know exactly when, but this will be my last season and I’m really looking forward to that,” she said. Collins has hit some remarkable highs in the sport, including the 2022 final at this tournament, two WTA titles, and the No. 7 ranking, all while managing endometriosis that required a 2021 surgery to remove a “cyst the size of a tennis ball.” Beyond the fearless hitting, it’ll be difficult to replace her vocal stylings on the court.
Swiatek, who faces an extremely gnarly draw at this tournament, briefly envisioned the end of her stay in Australia. “Oh my god, I was at the airport already,” Swiatek said after the match, describing her mindset during Collins’s mid-match dominance. “I felt like I had the momentum going and then she started playing suddenly two times faster and I had no idea how to react to that for a couple of games. But I came back, and I thought the only thing I could focus on was myself. I stopped caring how she’s going to play, I just focused on myself.” It’s often said that the world No. 1 only thrives as a front-runner and struggles to adapt to adverse circumstances, but that critique never really clicked for me; this win—her 18th straight—should help put it to rest.
It’s not over until it’s over…
— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) January 18, 2024